Issue: September/October 2010
Entrepreneur's Toolkit: Going With the Flow
Thirty years after inventing a way to recycle all kinds of rubber and plastic into fuel and other polymers, Charles Grispin may have lightning in a bottle.
In the late 1970s, Charles Grispin invented a technology that could recycle all forms of plastic and rubber into a rich hydrocarbon liquid that contained diesel, gasoline and other valuable chemical compounds.
And then he mothballed the invention for more than 20 years as he bounced around from project to project, none of which amounted to much.
What to Ask
Do you have business skills in your organization?
Even nonprofits benefit from being run like a business, says Baldwin-Wallace College’s Phil Bessler. “Many social ventures have the passion but lack the business skills that will allow them to be successful.”
Who are your partners?
You will need partners who are aligned with your economic and social values, says Miami University’s Brett Smith. “How do you begin to build alliances, partnerships and collaborations so you don’t have to do it all on your own? There may be partners who are capable of helping to support this work.”
What barriers exist?
Many social entrepreneurs find they need to sell to municipalities, where there are many bureaucratic barriers. For instance, do you need EPA approval?
What other government approvals do you need? “There are often too many barriers put into place by government regulations,” says Bob Chalfant, a lecturer at the University of Akron.
“He had other things to do,” says Joe Hensel, co-founder and technology development director of Polyflow, which took Grispin’s idea and turned it into a business in 2005. “He was an inventor, so he just set it aside.”
Grispin doesn’t give interviews, Hensel says. He’s too busy working on new projects.
But sometime in 2002, Grispin heard of Frank Kelley at the University of Akron’s Ohio Polymer Enterprise Development Inc. and brought his technology there. That’s where he met Hensel, who was working with Kelley.
“We vetted the technology and decided there was no reason it wouldn’t work,” Hensel remembers. “The potential was enormous.”
The potential is still there, and might be a little more reachable as Polyflow finds investors. Currently the company has just a pilot plant in Akron, where it can process 400 pounds of plastic and rubber in about two-and-a-half hours.
To do that, workers load an 8-foot-tall piece of equipment that looks remarkably like a still with shredded and whole pieces of plastic and rubber. When the heat is turned on, the stuff inside is vaporized.
“We let it go through the process,” Hensel says, “and then convert that vapor back into the products that we make in a condenser.”
To be viable, Polyflow simply needs to be able to continuously flow the recyclables into the vaporizer instead of doing a batch here and a batch there. The new factory it hopes to build will be able to do that.
Within a year, Hensel believes the company will have raised the $10 million to build a small showcase plant that will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Aside from developing a new form of alternative energy, Hensel says, the technology also lessens the growing crisis of plastics in landfills.
“There is a difficulty in recycling plastics,” Hensel says. “It’s not economical to recycle because there are millions of grades and millions of types and no one can identify and sort out the different types. They work pretty hard at water bottles and milk jugs, but anything beyond that is too time consuming and labor intensive.”
Polyflow has sidestepped that problem by figuring out a way to recycle that “mixed and dirty stream,” Hensel says, and turning it into something valuable: A product that can be turned into new polymers to make plastics and rubber or used as an alternative fuel source.
“Our feed stream is available in excess,” Hensel says. “It’s available locally, and it’s available without any significant transportation cost.”
Polyflow hopes to build recycling facilities and have them operate with local ownership. It has completed demonstrations for all the solid waste districts in Northeast Ohio, including Cleveland’s. And the company has an oral agreement to work with the Portage County Solid Waste Management District.
If the technology can spread across the country, Hensel says it could reduce our country’s dependence on foreign crude oil by 3.5 percent.
“The potential impact is massive,” Hensel says. “We give an end-of-life solution to plastics, but this is also a significant amount of energy
and fuel that we can produce.”
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